Frank Lavin has spent years giving business owners a single piece
of key advice: expand abroad.
Over the years, though, the Commerce Department’s former undersecretary for international trade realized this was easier said than done.
“To say ‘why don’t you go to Mexico or France or China?’ is really tough,” said Lavin, also a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore. “The smaller the company, the less practical it becomes to learn a new language, deal with new tax codes and currencies and to take a huge global risk.”
Lavin is hoping his new Internet service Export Now can fix that by connecting American businesses with Chinese consumers.
“We’ve taken all the headaches out of exporting — language, regulations, logistics, distribution,” Lavin said. “All you have to do is click and ship.”
Here is how it works: American businesses mail their goods, on consignment, to Export Now’s U.S. facilities. From there, items are collected and shipped by sea to a warehouse in China. Once the merchandise arrives in China, business owners are free to begin advertising and selling their items on Tmall.com, an online marketplace similar to eBay.
“For the American business, this is just like a domestic sale,” Lavin said. “They deal with U.S. sales representatives and do business in dollars. And for the Chinese customers, it has the convenience of a local transaction: they pay in yuan and get the product within a matter of days.”
Although the government’s Small Business Administration offers a series of online training courses and free tools for entrepreneurs interested in exporting, Lavin says he does not know of any programs for small businesses that are as comprehensive as Export Now’s.
“All of a sudden, small businesses don’t need a warehouse or translators or customs specialists to go global,” Lavin said. “We can take all of that and put it in a box, so to speak.”
There is an annual fee of $3,000, plus a 10 percent transaction fee on each sale.
Lavin, who hopes to have between 10 and 20 companies signed up by the end of this year, said he recommends that small businesses stick to selling premium and novelty products abroad — items that Chinese consumers would be willing to pay.
“If you make the world’s best omelet pan, you might sell 1,000 in the U.S. but then you’re stuck,” Lavin said. “Now though, you can sell another 1,000 in China.”